Posted on Monday 20 August 2018 by Ulster Business

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The Chartered Institute of Management Accountants (CIMA) and Ulster Business brought together some experts to discuss the future of automation across Northern Ireland business and industry


Andrew Harding
(CIMA chief executive)

Steve Swientozielskyj
(CIMA global president)

Kevin Gormley,
(Acting head of CIMA in Ireland)

Sinead Dillon,
(Principal consultant, Fujitsu)

Billy Moore,
(Finance director, Henderson Food Service)

Chris Maylin,
(Managing partner, Amplifi Solutions)

David Haydock,
(Finance manager for General Accounting Shared Service, Caterpillar)

David McHugh,
(Finance director, Seagate Technology)

Will Foley,
(Associate director, IT business consulting, Grant Thornton)

John Mulgrew
(Editor, Ulster Business)


John Mulgrew: How much and what form of automation is already happening in Ireland, particularly within accountancy and professional services?

Andrew Harding: What we’re seeing globally is automation is patchy, we’ve got some early adopters, we’ve got some late adopters and not always the companies you’d expect them to be. We’re actually seeing some major corporations who are a long way behind.

Steve Swientozielskyj: I have difficulty conceptualising, when we talk about automation intelligence, robotics, but actually what is the definition of that? So, for example, the cloud - people have been on the cloud for years. Scanning technology, that’s robotics. So these are the things that I’m trying to get my head around. There is a general conversation about what artificial intelligence and robotics are.

John Mulgrew: How would you explain what robotics means to the layman?

Will Foley: The main thing is looking at those necessary, very important back-office administrative jobs, which are highly repetitive. It needs to be done. It’s very, very important, it has to get done, it has to get done well, you need a high quality in it, you need it done in a timely fashion, but for your staff, it’s the most boring work they do. It’s not the stuff that gets them out of bed in the morning. It’s not the reason that they’d arrive in.

Sinead Dillon: There are different areas. There’s the automation for the data collection and the actual assimilation and processing of it and then there’s the more advanced areas, which are about machine-learning and the deep learning.

John Mulgrew: Can you give us a real-world example of the type of automation we are talking about?

Steve Swientozielskyj: In layman’s terms, for example if we talk about manual systems, think of a purchase invoice. We can get it through post, somebody opens the envelope, somebody then codes it, then somebody keys it in, or writes in a ledger, and then somebody might do the accounts, so it’s all paper based. Now, for example with scanning technology, there’s no paper, and it’s emailed to you. It is then scanned, and recognises the difference between an o and a zero. It would learn how to do that and put that in the accounts and then it would automatically go into your accounts system, then it would be pushed to you for you to authorise. And all you had to do to authorise that invoice was press that button.

David Haydock: We’ve got high-tech ERP systems at the moment which you press the buttons and the things work separately, but you think of simple tasks like inputting the standard cost into an ERP system, it’s a pretty straightforward activity. However, there are many points, through the supplier setting up, or the purchasing setting up the supplier, to engineering giving the cost, going through, as the controls have to happen to reach the right people inputting the right place.

Chris Maylin: If you look at the tools that are available to the SME sector, they are far advanced in my opinion, to the tools available to the corporate sector. You’ve got things like Xero which is a cloud-based accounting, then you’ve got a whole eco-system of very clever software that sits around it like, such as Receipt Bank. You get the invoice into your business, you fire it off into Receipt Bank, it codes everything, it does the tax for you, and you bring it through to Xero and you reconcile it, and it’s a one-click transaction.

Kevin Gormley: To me, a lot of this is just a new sales game by software companies - this word ‘robotics’. Some people imagine actual physical robots when they hear that and I think there’s a lot of confusion in the market, particularly in Ireland. So I think we’ve been very slow to adopt this technology primarily because of that confusion... a lot of this is not new stuff. >

John Mulgrew: For some, the words automation and robotics confuses and worries workers. Should people be concerned?

Andrew Harding: There are some people who should be concerned. If your job is around preparing spreadsheets to move data from one place to the next, that is going to be automated. And if that’s your special skill you are going to have to think very hard about how you’re going to add value to a business in the future.

David Haydock: But that’s not just today. That has been happening for the last 15-20 years. When I started, a lot of my job was taking information from one report and keying it into an Excel spreadsheet. The way I see, like Excel, I think will eventually disappear as an accountant’s tool, it will be in the background.

Andrew Harding: The abacus lasted several thousand years, the comptometer lasted about 120, the pocket calculator lasted 40, the spreadsheet is going to last 25.

Will Foley: Yes, we were all told in school that you had to know your sums because you wouldn’t have a calculator in your pocket at all times, and now everybody does. So technology moves forward.

Sinead Dillon: But skills are so important. How do people know that they need to go and upskill themselves and to be aware, they have to have creativity. I mean problem-solving, decision-making – opportunity comes with that. So, while they can be concerned, again it’s back to that education piece, showing them what they can do and how they can become more productive with more challenges.

John Mulgrew: Will that mean new jobs being created, that don’t exist now?

Will Foley: It’s not necessarily new jobs, it’s probably reskilling. I think the jobs will still be called what they’re called, but the skill-set required to complete that job will have changed, even from the point of view of I think back to the kind of cottage industry point nearly, you know a lot of these technologies as they get deployed, they will be deployed locally within business units and within areas, and the processes will still be there.

Sinead Dillon: To use automation they need to have skilled workers who can run the machines as well, but there are fewer people required to do that. But they need to be taken on that journey to be able to have, so where we used to have accounting and computing it’s more of the new terms like accounting and data scientist and machine learning.

John Mulgrew: Can the automation be responsible for more complex tasks?

Andrew Harding: I think the way you need to look at it, anything which can be defined by rules can be automated. And that can take you quite a long way up the value chain. Things like the medical profession, the legal profession, they are highly susceptible to change through this.

Kevin Gormley: I think a big concern is around exceptions management in processes. So everything’s fine until you have a particular requirement or you have a niche requirement from an organisation and then all hell breaks loose. Probably 60%-70% of a company’s business is the thing they do in a certain way, and it’s very repeatable and predictable. However, the worst experiences people have of many companies is because they want something different or they don’t fit within that criteria.

Billy Moore: The level of data that’s being generated is increasing. The reality is that we’re behind the curve. How do we stay competitive, how do we find the magic in that and how do we train people to go and to find it, and give them space to find it, rather than doing the transactional stuff?

John Mulgrew: In Northern Ireland, are there still a lot of companies relying on traditional input methods?

Kevin Gormley: You’d be amazed. Some of the larger organisations, who will remain anonymous, literally still run their business by Excel.

David McHugh: I think the social thing is a huge thing, but it’s something, that I think that there’s very little focus on education and starting to prepare to change for the future. Because we’re still using the same examinations and interviews for the last 20 years. The world is going to be very different in 20 years’ time but we are not preparing our children for that at all and I think that is something that we really to need look at.

John Mulgrew: Where do you see the main changes coming down the line in the next five or 10 years for companies, in particular within accountancy?

Andrew Harding: If we’re looking at it, we see digitisation being at the centre of everything, and it’s not at the moment. And everything sits on top of that. If you don’t have the digital skills and the ability to manage digital, and to develop digital, then you are going to be left behind.

David McHugh: Data is the new oil. You know it is where your competitive advantage will be.

John Mulgrew: Is there a cut-off for firms when it becomes just to late to embrace technology and automation?

Billy Moore: The end of this is what the customer’s demand of the business is, and how they engage. So, once they start changing their approach, and they have done over recent years, saying I don’t want to engage with you on the phone I want to engage with you through technology, then all of a sudden that just drives things through the business in terms of how you have to change.

Will Foley: People, from my experience, are looking for real-world examples. They don’t want to hear about the potential, they want to see the proof. They want to see what you’ve actually done, even if it’s small.

Chris Maylin: Thinking about CIMA and the future of CIMA, I think there has to be a focus through the exam structure around data, because we were at a couple of software companies who started out with a dream of creating software platforms that are completely different, different things. Five years down the line they’re now being offered serious money and it’s nothing to do with the software platform - it’s to do with the data they’ve captured.

John Mulgrew: If you are a business reading this, what advice would you give them?

Steve Swientozielskyj: If you take the professional side, the first thing is we’re actually doing a new syllabus, we’re trying to keep up with it, and keeping up with the progress in technology.

Andrew Harding: If you think that this is something that you can give to your IT department, forget about it. They would be really interested in how it all works but they won’t implement it. You can hire people in who will do that, but you can’t just give it to them to do, it has to be owned by the business, it has to be led by the business.

Will Foley: You still need the specialist knowledge, that doesn’t go away. The specialist work still needs to get done, so you still the need the people who have that specialist knowledge.

Sinead Dillon: The risk factor to some firms, is there’s a concern about how much it can affect the bottom-line because there isn’t that spirit or capacity there to do that and then in the light of the current climate that’s what impacts the level of investment.

Will Foley: I think younger people probably a better understanding of technology, because they have grown up with it in a way that people who are mid-career haven’t, who’ve had to deal with it. I still think there’s a journey there, as we’re talking about the education process and stuff like that it’s not that they’re getting a lot of specific education on it, but I think they probably see the value in technology more.


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